January 2022 News Perspective Online

Alumna Profile: Sarah Benibo

At a recent Advent service, worshippers at Embassy City Church joined in singing something a bit different than the typical contemporary fare: a Taizé piece entitled “Wait for the Lord.” Taizé is a meditative form of music that emerged from the Taizé Community, an ecumenical Christian monastic fraternity in France.

The church’s worship pastor, Sarah Benibo (M.S.M. ’20) chose the Taizé piece. It’s significant because, before attending Perkins, Benibo had never heard of Taizé.

“We were encouraged to incorporate foreign language and non-western styles of music in our worship, primarily to remind people that the body of Christ is global,” she said. “Christianity stretches way past our borders. It’s a way to remind our congregations that Christianity is bigger than what we see in our corner of the world.” That awareness of different kinds of music, Benibo believes, has made her a better worship leader.

Benibo oversees music for all weekend and special services at the 1500-member multicultural congregation in Irving, Texas. The nondenominational church’s membership is about 60% Black members, 20% Anglo, and 20% African, Latinx and other ethnicities. Benibo acts as worship coordinator, facilitator and curator – and most weekends, she sings, too. It’s a big responsibility for a recent graduate, but Benibo says her Perkins education prepared her theologically and practically for the job.

“It gave me self-awareness as well as awareness of others,” she said. “I had never heard of social location before I attended Perkins. Now I understand that, being an able-bodied, middle class, African American woman, completely colors and shapes my perspective on theology, on the Bible, and on my interpretation and understanding of the Bible. Being aware of my social location informs and occasionally redirects what I say and how I say it when trying to convey a message to someone with different qualities. As I’m serving a multicultural congregation, I’m aware of my blind spots and my perspective so that I can serve people best.”

Music has also been part of her life since childhood, so Benibo was surprised when her time at Perkins also heightened her appreciation of music.

“So much of Christianity is about biblical texts,” she said. “Sometimes this can pigeonhole God into a corner; if it is not spoken, if it is not sung with a lyric, it does not hold power. I credit Dr. Chris Anderson and Dr. Marcell Steuernagel for being advocates of music, in and of itself, as a gift from God to humanity.  Sound can communicate so much. At Perkins, I learned to embrace music for music’s sake.”

Benibo grew up as the child of a Pentecostal pastor, so she was always familiar with the Bible and the Christian faith. Perkins expanded her understanding of both.

“I have been looking for a singular truth most of my life,” she said. “At Perkins, I learned that two things can be true at once.  I can be a believer and I can also question. I can interrogate the scripture and still be a lover of scripture.”

Benibo applied and was admitted to both Perkins and Dallas Theological Seminary.

“I knew DTS would be more similar to the background I came from, but I was hungry for a more varied approach to theological studies,” she said. “And that’s exactly what I got at Perkins. Even if I don’t adopt all of the thinking I was exposed to at Perkins, I became more aware of other ways to see the sacred texts.”

Susanne Scholz’s Old Testament classes, for example, exposed her to womanist theology and scholarship.

“That opened my eyes to different ways to approach texts,” she said. “In the past, in reading Genesis, my focus was on Sarah and Abraham. Now my focus is on Hagar and Ishmael, and how Hagar was treated and how God heard her crying in the wilderness. Before, I didn’t think [Hagar’s plight] was the point of the story. Maybe it is the point of the story. It depends on who is telling the story.”

Before attending Perkins, Benibo said, she had some hesitations.

“I worried: If I open my mind, will I lose my passion?” she said. “But my Perkins education did the opposite. It fortified my faith.  I realized that God is not intimidated by my questions, my wonderings or my doubts. God welcomes all of me.”